Partners on a Journey
Enterprise Academy graduates use connections, knowledge gained through course to advance community-focused businesses in Central Minnesota
By Sarah Kocher | Photography by John Linn
Since launching Bridge Healing Center in June 2022, Ali Aden and his wife Lul Nur have tripled their staff to provide addiction and mental health services with a specific focus on diverse communities in the wider St. Cloud area.
A graduate of the Initiative Foundation’s Enterprise Academy, which helped him to hone his networking and business skills, Aden hopes the addition of four licensed therapists will help to meet the needs of the mental health center’s growing client list. As he evolves the business, he and his wife have been intentional about creating a safe and familiar space. Using his Enterprise Academy connections, Aden partnered with classmate Anisa Hagi-Mohamed, whose culturally rooted original artwork and graphic designs adorn the walls of the Bridge Healing Center office space on Wilson Avenue in northeast St. Cloud.
While they may go through the program together, each Enterprise Academy student is on their own journey and timeline to launch a business. The common thread? All are on the ground floor of building more equitable economies and communities in Central Minnesota.
At the heart of the Enterprise Academy is a 12-week business course that provides training and individualized advising to help underserved entrepreneurs start and grow small businesses. The expert-taught classes lead students through basic business principles and help them start—and ultimately finish—a business plan. Graduates also can apply for microloans through the Initiative Foundation.
“This program is a launchpad for early-stage entrepreneurs who have historically faced barriers to owning their own businesses,” said Ismail Mohamed, Enterprise Academy program manager. “We meet each entrepreneur where they’re at and walk alongside them with training and resources to support them moving forward.”
Since starting in 2018, the Enterprise Academy has graduated 150 students, primarily in the St. Cloud and Mille Lacs Tribal Economy areas. The program has provided more than 3,000 hours of classroom training and 1,700-plus hours of one-on-one coaching. Equally impressive: More than 50 percent of students have followed through to start a business compared to the national average (20 to 25 percent) for startup entrepreneurs who have received some form of training.
Building Wealth, Culture, Community
For Aden, who provides addiction and mental health services in Somali and Arabic, a microloan from the Initiative Foundation helped the business hire a provider, acquire technology and fund outreach campaigns to build awareness and attract more clients. He’s now looking for ways Bridge Healing Center (bridgehealingcenter.com) can provide even more client support.
Along the way, he and his team navigate cultural stigmas around mental health, guide clients through an unfamiliar healthcare system, find client transportation, and build trust in interpreters to maintain confidentiality in a small and tight-knit community. It’s early days for his venture, but Aden sees the promise and the possibility.
Affirmation of a Good Plan
Anisa Hagi-Mohamed sees possibility, too. An artist by nature, Hagi-Mohamed leveraged her background in education and a master’s degree in applied linguistics to create a publishing business featuring her original artwork. Her leading product, Kalsooni bilingual affirmation cards, features positive expressions (phrases like “Khatar Baa Tahay!” or, in English, “You are Outstanding!”) paired with Somali textiles and artifacts. Sales have climbed for the deck of 52 Kalsooni cards—online orders in particular at anisahagi.com—since launching the business in 2021.
“I was surprised about where (my business) went in 2022,” Hagi-Mohamed said. “I worked with a lot of different groups and people,” including a halal grocery store in Hopkins, a local children’s museum, a youth group and a Twin Cities children’s hospital. While she’s donated to schools or given Kalsooni decks out at events, Hagi-Mohamed said she’s sold the vast majority and has gone through more than half of her original print run of 3,000. Sales are largely domestic, but also include some international buyers. Her mission is to reach customers whose values align with her own and to provide resources that speak to matters of cultural importance and healing.
“… Coming to this country and kind of carrying a lot of trauma with us … those positive words were missing,” Hagi-Mohamed said. “I have three kids of my own now, and I’m always trying to be intentional about the language that I use.”
In addition to connecting with other business owners like Aden, Enterprise Academy affirmed for Hagi-Mohamed that she is on a meaningful path. “Overall, the biggest takeaway that I’ve gotten from the program is confidence—like I can really do this,” she said.
Mille Lacs-area graduates Danielle Kadlec and her mother, Rebecca Churchill, share a can-do attitude as they develop Endazhi-Odaminong, a childcare business they hope to open in Grand Casino Mille Lacs. Originally intended as a drop-in site, the mother-daughter duo is reworking their business plan to focus on school-aged children.
Kadlec said the pivot addresses an age gap not served by other centers in the area. “… A number one (challenge) in (casino) employment was childcare in the area,” Kadlec said. “They can’t find any.” Kadlec can relate. She’s faced the same challenge for the past two to three years.
A mentor for teens in the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Ge-Niigaanizijig after-school program, Kadlec and her mother, an educator, are charging forward with renewed focus to secure the necessary permissions, renovate and move in within the next year. Their goal is simple: to make a dent in the acute tribal economy childcare shortage. “We know there’s a big need for childcare within our community,” Churchill said.
A Friend at Your Side
Enterprise Academy cohorts average about 10 students and include entrepreneurs at different stages, said Brian Voerding, Initiative Foundation vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship. Some enter the program with fully functioning businesses, while others have the seed of an idea and can take a year or more to launch their business. “Everyone is on their own journey,” he said, “and Enterprise Academy is designed to support entrepreneurs through all of the early stages of development.”
It’s an investment with the potential for significant economic and community benefit. “If we imagine what this looks like for the long-term,” Voerding said, “it’s connecting a successful business over here and another successful business over there, and they’re all run by folks who represent the community they’re serving. That’s a critical piece of economy-and culture-building.”
To learn if Enterprise Academy is right for you or someone you know, visit ifound.org/economy/enterprise-academy. Contact Donniel Robinson or Ismail Mohamed for a one-on-one conversation about your small business goals.